SOLAS Regulations & Container Ship Fires

05 June 2021 | Capt. Anil Sarvaria

SOLAS Regulations & Container Ship Fires

The fire on MV X-Press Pearl once again brought to the forefront the inadequacy of firefighting on modern container ships. The Singapore-registered MV X-Press Pearl was built by Zhoushan Changhong International Shipyard Co. Ltd of China for Singapore-based X-Press Feeders. The vessel entered service in February 2021 and was around 186 metres (610 ft) long. The ship was anchored off Colombo awaiting berth when on May 20 it caught fire. At the time of the incident it was reported to be carrying 1,486 containers, including 25 tonnes of nitric acid. Authorities battled the blaze for 13 days and finally on June 20 the ship sank while the attempt was being made to tow it to deeper waters. The fire on MV X-Press Pearl has once again highlighted the inadequacy of present SOLAS requirements.

The fire safety objectives of SOLAS are to prevent fires and explosions and reduce risk to life, environment and property, as well as contain fires in compartment of origin (SOLAS Part A, Reg. 2, paragraph 1.1). Following a series of fires IMO amended SOLAS regulation II-2/10, introducing new requirements for fire protection of on-deck cargo areas. With effect from 01Jan2016 all new ships designed to carry five or more tiers of containers on or above the weather deck shall also be provided with mobile water monitors, in addition to the water mist lance mentioned above and all other fire protection arrangements that should be provided on board as per existing regulations. Ships with a breadth up to 30 m should be provided with at least two mobile water monitors and ships with a breadth exceeding 30 m or more should be provided with at least four mobile water monitors.

The present SOLAS requirements for containers ships are largely the same as for other cargo vessels, with some minor additional requirements, as mentioned above, for container vessels constructed after 1 January 2016. These regulations do not adequately address fires in containers on deck which present their own challenges. The larger ships may have container stacks up to 30 meters high, so many containers will be out of reach to crew with fire hoses and the equipment requirement will be of limited value in most container ship fire scenarios. According to Shipping Law News 9 major container ship fires reportedly took place in 2019 whereas there were 10 such incidents in first half of 2020. These statistics suggest that there is an urgent need for change in the existing regulations. For protecting deck fires on modern container ships one has to move away from the concept of portability for fire fighting equipment. These ships, some of these are 400 meter long and 60 meter wide, must be provided with fixed firefighting equipment in way of container decks. These could be water based and capable of being remotely operated. Some of these could be fixed monitors on monkey island and bridge wings, if the bridge does not cover the entire width of the ship. Fixed water spray nozzles at deck level capable of covering the entire length and height of the container stack.As an industry all stakeholders – the classifications societies, the regulators like IMO, insurers and the ship owners must come together and do more than just shake our head at the statistics and blame the fires on misdeclaration of cargo. If this is not done in a timely fashion then we are not too far from a billion dollar loss in this segment of the shipping industry.